Friday, 31 July 2015

Where Are The Stars?

I'll admit that I bought into the hype that came with the announcement of a women's hockey league that was to pay its players. The NWHL arrived with the fanfare that the WHA did when it decided to kick the door in, and the CWHL, acting like the NHL, reacted like it was no big deal. There was a kick-off event with US Olympians and some press, and things looked like they might be ramping up for the upstart league. Everything being said by Commissioner Dani Rylan sounded like the NWHL was out for CWHL blood with the promise of pay and becoming the place where elite players would play, but with the calendar turning to August that promise seems to be running a little thin with regard to the stars that were to be delivered.

That's not to say there aren't recognizable names on rosters at this point. Brianne McLaughlin was on the US Olympic team in Sochi in 2014, and she'll be suiting up for the Buffalo Beauts. Janine Weber, formerly of the CWHL's Boston Blades, signed with the New York Riveters, and she's best known for her Clarkson Cup-winning overtime goal last season. Madison Packer, Emily Field, and Jillian Dempsey are names that you should know if you're following the collegiate game as well, but there seems to be a distinct lack of star power in the NWHL.

Much like the WHA during its start, being an upstart hockey league with the promise of paying players more than they've seen in "that other league" means nothing unless they can land a major star. It took the WHA's owners banding together and driving a dump truck of money down to Portage and Main in Winnipeg to get Bobby Hull - arguably the biggest star in the NHL at the time - to sign with Winnipeg. With Hull signing, however, the influx of NHL stars followed soon after as players like Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, and Bernie Parent made the jump to the WHA.

The NWHL may have to make the same kind of push if they're going to gain some legitimacy on the CWHL in terms of star players. As of right now, there aren't a lot of faces that the average American fan is going to recognize. Names like Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Jessie Vetter, Kendall Coyne, and Kacey Bellamy are still unsigned, and these players should bring immediate legitimacy to the league if the NWHL can get them to sign. If not, the NWHL may go through a lot of programs at games this season.

It was a foregone conclusion that many of the Canadian Olympians and recognizable stars would remain with their respective CWHL clubs, but the Boston Blades was the one CWHL team where things could change dramatically thanks to the Boston Pride rivaling them for players and fans. The Blades are stocking the NWHL with players in a way as all of the players who were relegated to less-than-regulars are jumping ship. The aforementioned Janine Weber along with Corinne Buie, Kelly Cooke, Jess Koizumi, and Alyssa Gagliardi have already signed with NWHL teams while players like Casey Pickett and Denna Laing skated in Boston's edition of the NWHL tryout camps.

While I fault none of the players above for going and finding more playing time than the third line on the CWHL's Boston Blades, players and American Olympians like Knight, Decker, Meghan Duggan, and the Lamoureux twins remain uncommitted to any NWHL team where their presence is needed. Like Hull did for the WHA in legitimizing the league, any of these players - or any others who are recognizable by name - signing in the NWHL would, in theory, kick-start the signings of other notable players.

The question, therefore, should be asked if the owners of the respective NWHL teams should band together like the owners in the WHA did, throw a pile of money into a pot in order to sign a major player like the WHA did for Bobby Hull, and bring on a Hilary Knight and a Brianna Decker to help the entire league gain a foothold.

As much as this sounds like a terrible business idea for the four NWHL owners, it's not so far-fetched when you consider that one of the NCAA's best players in Marie-Philip Poulin went home to Montreal to play with the CWHL's Stars rather than grabbing a paid roster spot in the NWHL. Poulin was a household name in Boston, and she would instantly make Boston better. The same can be said for any of the American Olympians who are household names across the United States, yet there hasn't been one big-name player signing by the NWHL.

While I have no issues with any of the women signed as they all have made their respective teams on merit, the NWHL is turning into a second-tier women's league with a few lesser-known players from elite Division-I NCAA schools and a pile of players from lesser-known programs in the northeastern United States. The marketing and message of the NWHL at the start of their campaign was to have the best players playing in the NWHL. So far, they're falling short on the delivery of that promise.

As it stands, the NWHL is giving a pile of women a chance to play hockey for money, but I'm not sure they're going to build rabid fanbases without some of the elite women hockey stars. They need to make a splash to give the league some legitimacy as well as giving the fans a reason to come and watch these games. In saying that, it might be time to tear a page from the history books for the NWHL and try something that worked for one upstart league for a while.

Otherwise, their history may be shorter than the WHA's history.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Anonymous said...

Few things:
The owners of the WHA banded together to sign Hull. If the NWHL were to do the same, there would have to be 4 owners willing to do so. Back in April, the league said they would make an announcement soon about a potential owner. 3-4 months later, and there is still is no evidence of any owners for any of the teams. Granted, if the league owns all the teams, then you would assume the NWHL could easily band together to sign one or two big name players. However, if they were to follow league salary cap rules, then said big name player would only be able to make $100,000, while all of their teammates make the league minimum $10,000.

That said, there are still 16 days left for big name players to sign with the NWHL. There are several US National team players who have been linked with NWHL teams so far (Decker, Stack, Hickel, Bellamy in Boston, Knight in New York, Bozek, Pfalzer in Buffalo), but who knows if they are all waiting to make one big announcement. If they still haven't signed big names by the time they start selling tickets & merchandise, well then people should get worried. Granted, with the CWHL having started selling season tickets with a later start date, it is a bit concerning that NWHL tickets haven't gone on sale.

One last thing...for those National team players considering the jump from the CWHL to NWHL, could potential lawsuits & IIHF sanctions stop them from breaking their CWHL contracts?

Teebz said...

With the teams each absorbing a cost to bring in a major player, the four owners (whomever they may be if they exist at all) culd still operate under a salary cap scenario. It would be no different than covering a portion of a player's contract in the NHL.

There may be 16 days remaining, but there are still a ton of roster sports outside the big stars that need to be filled. The tricke-down effect of having stars sign to teams needs to start yesterday. Otherwise, the NWHL will remain irrelevant. Being associated with a team means nothing at this point unless negotiations are on-going. If they are, why are they dragging on so long?

Agreed on the ticket sales. The CWHL is already building its fanbase again. The NWHL has done little to get people onboard.

I doubt the IIHF would have a stake in the game, but there could be lawsuits between the NWHL and CWHL if a player under contract with either league makes the jump to the other. Like the NHL who sued the WHA for the Hull contract, the similarities between these two situations is uncanny.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the thoughtful piece. these are sadly lacking in the NWHL fan frenzy/blog coverage i've been reading everywhere.

there are currently no owners of the NWHL teams. rylan suggested there would be, but who would buy into a thing that has no assets? players are the biggest assets, but you need names. like a hilary knight. and then, one year contracts make no sense. who would buy and invest in a team whose assets are temporal and impermanent and players can go wherever they want?

regarding the CWHL us team players who haven't signed to NWHL: technically from what people i know, know, they haven't asked for releases from the CWHL (yet). i too wonder what they will do. there are several factors to consider. and the biggest is that the CWHL is still where the stars (wickenheiser, labonte, chu) and the highest level of competition exists - as it combined and concentrated the talents of national team members in canada and us. i suspect the american national team players are weighing this in regards to a potential leap to NWHL. the competition won't be as vibrant or interesting for them in the NWHL as it stands, even if those 4-6 current NT players from the blades join. do they just want to play against themselves or do they want to keep up with the poulins and the spooners and johnstons? also, how much hi calibre hockey can you get playing one game a week in the NWHL? if i was hockey usa i would advise my players to stick with CWHL. they already get money to be national team players, and the competition should be more important to them. also the time is not right for 9 elite teams in NA. the talent pool is still too shallow to keep the game at the level it’s achieved in the CWHL.

i also believe rylan totally miscalculated what a draw her paltry salaries would be to CWHL players. earlier in the year, she was circulating false lists of prospective 'teams' that included a great number of can olympians and topline CWHL players. she made a mistake, and as with the false camp rosters the NWHL was posting, should really be reprimanded for that kind of 'fronting'. kohanchuk for example was on a list and not cool with that mistake. it could have compromised her CWHL contract. bellamy was on a list but didn’t skate. same potential compromise of contract. that strikes me as both dumb and damaging to players, as it’s at the expense of making it seem like her league is where it’s at.

i would also love to know why she broke off discussion about expansion with the CWHL and why she didn’t tell them what she was going to do instead. (plus she sent letters soliciting CWHL players behind the CWHL’s back). there’s something really fishy there.

notably, big name player agents and lots of players themselves, have doubts about where the NWHL money is coming from and what the ‘sustainable business plan’ is that rylan and her drones keep repeating exists. since they have made paying the players a tenant of their difference from the CWHL - then show the money. not one sponsor has been announced. (well, except for free slushies and ice cream in 2 arenas). i keep hearing that it's trust fund and/or donald trump money (ruggiero on the apprentice, on the advisory board, rylan in NY, chelsea piers a trump property? etc etc). if it is private money funnelled through the foundation that's not sustainable or stable or very transparent. and if it is trump money. gross. it's essentially a private league then. and who would join that vanity project? a league needs to prove it can support itself on fans and sponsorships.

also where is the governance structure of this new league? that also doesn’t inspire confidence or a belief in competence. a board of directors is essential to proper league management and decision making, and to attracting sponsors and building corporate relationships. and how can a GM also be a commissioner? this league is like lord of the flies.

Teebz said...

Wow. Anon #2, that was one helluva comment. LOL

You've basically hit the nail on the head on all of your comments. Legitimacy - finances, real owners, players - is based on promises right now, and, like you said, there's no transparency whatsoever. Honestly, every point you raise is valid, and you ask the right questions.

Anon, if you see this, fire me an email. I think something like you posted above would make for a good piece on HBIC. :)

Anonymous said...

"One last thing...for those National team players considering the jump from the CWHL to NWHL, could potential lawsuits & IIHF sanctions stop them from breaking their CWHL contracts?"

The CWHL doesn't pay their players so I doubt their contracts are worth more than the paper they are written on...I also highly doubt the IIHF would sanction a woman for playing in a new hockey league.